No GMO, thanks

Suggestions for shoppers

July 27, 2012

More than 15 years after genetically modified foods quietly entered the American marketplace, we’re still not sure whether they’re safe to eat.

A recent study published by the International Journal of Biological Sciences linked Monsanto’s genetically modified corn to organ damage in rats. Meanwhile, a Canadian study detected GM-associated pesticides in the bloodstreams of pregnant women and their developing infants.

If you prefer to avoid genetically modified food, you’ll have to read labels carefully.

None of this research was done 16 years ago, when GM crops were first introduced in the U.S. In part, that’s because biotech companies aren’t required to conduct mandatory human clinical trials of genetically engineered organisms.

When polled, most Americans say they support mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. But the federal government doesn’t regulate the use of GMOs, nor does it mandate labeling. None of the 17 states with mandatory-labeling bills pending have succeeded in achieving their passage.

Here are eight tips that will help you steer clear of genetically engineered foods on your next trip to the grocery store. In the meantime, check out the Just Label It campaign to find out more about GM labeling.

  1. Start with labels. U.S. laws do not require food manufacturers to list GM ingredients on packaging. Many Americans who prefer to avoid GM foods are choosing organics, but foods certified by the USDA as “organic” can still contain small amounts of GM ingredients. That’s because they must contain 95 percent organic substances in order to carry the USDA seal. Only products certified by the USDA as “100 percent organic” guarantee the absence of GMOs.

    In an effort to take the guessing game out of shopping, many food manufacturers are now turning to third-party certification in an effort to gain consumer confidence. Look for foods featuring the “Non GMO Project Verified” seal to be sure your food is GMO-free.
  2. Avoid risky ingredients. Genetically modified crops in the U.S. include corn, canola, soybeans, cottonseed, sugar beets — even Hawaiian papaya. If these products aren’t labeled non-GMO, they probably aren’t (another reason to read labels carefully!).
  3. Go local. Often these GM ingredients come from large industrial farms. Instead of choosing big-name brands, make an effort to select foods produced by smaller companies. If you can, skip the supermarket altogether and purchase food at the farmers market. You’ll have the added benefit of supporting your local economy and helping to reduce environmental damage caused by extensive shipping. Food co-ops are another great way to access a wide range of local, GM-free food, often at prices lower than those at supermarkets featuring organic food.
  4. Forgo farm-raised salmon. There are many claims about the health risks associated with farm-raised salmon, from their increased rate of sea lice to diets based heavily on genetically modified soy, canola, and corn meal (and laced with antibiotics and chemicals). If wild salmon is unavailable or too expensive, ask your fishmonger for suggestions on local and sustainable seafood options.
  5. Choose your beef wisely. Many cattle are raised entirely on grass, but spend the last part of their lives in feedlots, where they are bulked up with GM corn. To ensure that your meat is GMO-free, look for beef labeled “100 percent grass-fed” or “pasture-finished.” When it comes to protein that cannot be purely grass-fed, such as poultry, choose products labeled “100 percent organic.”
  6. Buy growth-hormone-free dairy. In 1993, the FDA approved genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (known as rBGH or rBST) for use in commercial dairy farming. If you consume dairy, the Oregon board of Physicians for Social Responsibility suggests buying products from animals not injected with growth hormones. Plus, dairy animals may be eating GM foods. Your best bet is to buy certified organic dairy products instead.
  7. Protect your sweet tooth. A large part of U.S. sugar production is derived from GM sugar beets. If you must buy processed foods, avoid products with “sugar” listed among the ingredients. Instead, opt for alternatives containing only “pure cane sugar,” which is not genetically modified.
  8. Use an app! With so much information to remember, you might feel overwhelmed on your next trip to the store. But if your head starts to spin as you peruse the pasta aisle, don’t give up. There’s an app that can help: The True Food Shoppers Guide, created by the Center for Food Safety, offers detailed information that will help you fill your cart with GMO-free foods.

Caitlin Junkin has lived in the United States, Italy, France, and Spain. She is a food historian, sommelier, amateur photographer, and experienced chef’s apprentice who believes that food is one of the best ways to experience different cultures.

There are 6 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by tunie on Jul 29, 2012 at 11:40 AM PDT

The main issue with GMO’s is not whether they are healthy or not (even though they are inherently not as they manipulate the plant and destroy diversity of plant expression) but that they aim to control all seed and that they aim to do that by corrupting it. Which means they aim to “win” - at ANY cost, even at the cost of humanity.

2. by anonymous on Jul 29, 2012 at 11:58 AM PDT

The attempt to dominate the market is what is odious. Destroying the livelyhoods of small farmers is akin to the destruction of the soil microbes that make food possible.

As well, the health of the economy depends upon not one or two large corporations, but millions of people successfully making a living doing what they love. Have you’ve ever watched the footage of mid-western farmers sobbing at land auctions because they are losing their beloved connection to the earth (their words)? The economic infra-stucture of small farms - and our country - has been hijacked by chemical/seed companies (aka GMO agri-biz). This all began in the 80’s - 30 years later we are all still supporting this kind of food and this way of business every time we pay for our groceries.

3. by karen tsang on Aug 2, 2012 at 11:43 AM PDT

I sold breads at a farmer’s market for several years and have had many conversations with people about their bodies not being able to digest foods that they have enjoyed their entire lives. Eventually, in the discussion of genetically altered or GMO produce, I started to ask people this question:

If a food is altered to be drought resistant, pesticide resistant and pest resistant, doesn’t it stand to reason that this food might also be digestive resistant as well?

4. by anonymous on Dec 2, 2012 at 4:33 PM PST

Hi, I live off of about $23,000. I have a disabled child and can not work and see to her special needs and requirements of constant supervision. I only have high school education and it is expensive to hire people to care for an autistic child even if you could find a person willing to do it who your child would be safe with. Most of these products are not in my price range at all. Good food, and the ability to choose it is often out of reach of the masses. I am here trying to learn to feed my kids better. I priced grass-fed hamburger and it goes for at least $6.00 per pound. There was a sale at a local grocery for 1.79 per pound for hamburger. If I tried to buy grass-fed beef, everyone would be hungry because I’d have to cut 2/3 of the meat they have been eating. I could be wrong but I don’t see how it could cost 2/3’s more money to produce grass-fed beef. Until people stop gouging for good food, I can’t buy it at all. I feel like the poorest person reading this here site! Why is that? Why do I think the target audience has money to burn? I’ve read an article by someone who did not know how poor the conditions of farm workers could be. How about poor people in general? Ya’ll have go on field trips to find the poor, and speak as if money is irrelevant. I’m going to see if my chicken soup is done, I have $5.00 worth chicken, $2.00 worth of rice and wild rice blend, half a pack of celery and one onion in that pot seasonings. I’m feeding four people tonight. I may have left-overs for lunch for myself. I did it all for under $10 as I MUST. Maybe if you throw enough out there farmers will respond to cash and grow better food, but it is only for the wealthy.

5. by karen tsang on Dec 2, 2012 at 7:41 PM PST

Hi Dec. 2 Anon.,

I want to write something first to acknowledge how obviously difficult (um, impossible) it is to feed anyone on such a limited income but it all seems very trite. But still I want to respond to you with some experiences I work with and support farmers who are trying to do right things. This includes paying their workers living wages and even providing extended benefits to them (I’m in Canada, we have basic universal medical coverage for all). My community support agriculture (CSA) farmer makes tough decisions that affect his bottom line, like not growing foods using harmful chemical fertilisers or pesticides. He and his co-farmer -- his wife -- take into consideration both the consumers and the ecosystems that exist at and around their farm. This means that if an organic-farm allowed pesticide is thought to be okay for human consumption but harmful to the salmon in the river, my farmer will choose to lose the crop in the interest of keeping those salmon running in the river safe. These choices all cost his business money, and my farmer does not qualify for the big-business subsidies that large agri-business farms do.

I have a somewhat unique experience with grass-fed beef. I have always been food sensitive, and growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s meant that I was considered fussy, not sensitive. Getting sick from the food I was eating was a constant experience until I moved away from home. By then I was bulimic, in part at least because of the denial of my situation. I was never skinny, and I was never concerned with getting skinny, this was not at the core of my eating disorder (bulimia). Long story short, through a lot of work and trial and error, I discovered that foods were making me sick (as well as some emotional/mental health issues). One of the worst culprits at that time (late ‘80s) was grocery store beef, which would give me the sweats, keep me up all night because I could not digest it, cause me to be sick to my stomach. Solving that problem was, at first, relatively easy: I merely said no to consuming beef. This was easy so long as I wasn’t visiting home.

Then I had the opportunity to go on exchange to a remote village high in the hills of Sumatera, Indonesia. Me being who I was, I did not want to look “fussy” or insult the people in who’s home I was living. So when beef was served, I took a serving. I was quite amazed about two things: It didn’t bother me and about an ounce of meat felt like enough. Coming from a culture of people who would easily eat an 8 oz steak at lunch, this was quite a shocking change. And I loved beef as a kid. I was amazed that I could eat it there with no bad aftereffects.

Here’s the things about the meat we ate in that village: the cows were at the end of their useful life as domesticated farm animals. The meat was tough and sinewy, which is why the meat was cooked all day. (An aside: a chicken leg was easily the size of a drummette (from the wing) here, but one was enough to sustain me for the next day’s activities. I always felt satiated.

I returned home and begged my local butcher to find me some grass-fed/non-medicated beef, but he (and he was an OLD GUY) claimed that my idea was nonsense. I returned to skipping beef and eating other proteins, as nothing was really available in my area.

Of course things have really changed in the nearly 30 years since my first trip overseas, and I can source grass fed beef if I want to ... or can afford it. But things have changed in my world too: I have three small kids, two of whom I homeschool (unplanned but necessary), which means we live carefully on a limited (though in no way impoverished) budget. We do not eat a whole lot of beef, and source our other meats as carefully as we can afford. Most of the time we at least buy non-medicated, but sometimes I come across a source of meat that is carefully raised. Some of my sources have dried up since legislation outlawed the small meat processing plants (well ... they made the regulations favour the bigger agri-businesses over the little guys -- some times the smaller meat producers can’t even find anyone to butcher their animals because the bigger processing plants won’t take such small orders!)

So the availability of grassfed and responsibly raised animals for consumption is not what it could be, mostly through government interference.

But. But. Again, in my experience, when we consume grassfed beef, a couple of ounces fill us where once I could easily eat 6 ounces of a factory-raised animal. And we maybe have meat dinners three to four times a week, where we used to have it at least once a day. Dried beans and other less expensive things round out the rest of our week’s foods.

I know that my farmers have used their CSA program -- that’s when I pay in advance in late winter or early spring for the summer and fall harvests to keep my farmer out of the bank loans system -- to contribute to lower-income families. He sells a percentage of his CSA memberships at a lower price than what I pay to ensure his food goes to a wider variety of folk than it would if he didn’t. I also am aware of other programs being developed at farms and at farmer’s markets to help lower income families to eat the same foods as I put on my table and if this raises the price of my foods a bit, so be it, I am happy to contribute to your family’s well being as much as mine and that of my family.

If you have a local farmer’s market and you have the time to go with your child, you should find that there are a variety of price points at the different booths and the room for a kid with special needs to explore (unlike the grocery store aisles). I don’t know what your particular circumstances are, but if you can take your time at the market and chat and ask questions of the farmers, you might find out which foods will give you the best bang for your buck, or that they sell their remaining foods for much less toward the end of the day. Most think it is better to sell them at a loss than to take them home and compost them. They may also sell you cuts of meats for less if you ask them, you just won’t have your choice of the finest cuts (but I think I can assume, based on your comment, that this wouldn’t be your expectation).

Best of all, you might be surprised at the earnestness of some farmers and you will start to see that some price their foods more within reach than others. While they do want to clothe and feed their own families and put gas in their trucks and pay for their seed and equipment without having to hit a bank for an interest collecting loan each year, I believe many of them feel that farming is their calling in life, rather than something that lines their pockets with gold.

I believe we all have a responsibility to do better at finding a political system that ensures the citizens can feed themselves and their families healthy foods. Somehow we have to figure out how to change our governments’ priorities in this matter. But I’m also not convinced that big agri-businesses that can throw huge money (check in California on the advertising budget that was used to ensure people were paranoid enough to not vote out GMO products) are going to do that in the end. The money that my government and yours (through our taxes) (and Obama and the Clintons are very much supported and support Monsanto and other agri-businesses) spend on subsidies, enhancements and tax breaks could be considered unconscionable in a society that supposedly believes in a “free market” world. Just think. That money could be used to support farmers that are doing the right thing ...

I sure hope this doesn’t sound preachy or instructional, because it is not intended to be such. Next week is our public broadcaster’s yearly Christmas food bank drive, and I’m really struggling with how they turn fundraising to alleviate hunger into a big feel-good party. Listening to this kind of event feels weird and wrong, year on year, when what we (society) really needs to do is a better job of somehow sharing the (nutrition) wealth. I’m also tired of being cynical and angry about this kind of disconnect, so I’m trying to figure out how I can fit into changing this pattern in a more positive way within my city (Vancouver, Canada).

On the off chance you are in Vancouver, you can find me at If you aren’t or don’t wish to contact me, I wish you well in your quest to feed your family a healthy, balanced and yummy diet.

6. by Ben on Jul 24, 2014 at 10:06 PM PDT

I don’t understand all this GMO fear! Everything we know is to a certain extent genetically modified, it’s how things evolve. If there was no genetic modification we would all still be proto-bacteria.
I understand that people are scared of people “playing God” with the genetics of plants, but we have been doing that for thousands of years through selective breeding. Without selective breeding there would be no easily available grains, fruit would be small and not particularly delicious, there would be no old world wines because of fungal infection, dogs would still be wolves etc etc.
The only difference between Medel’s selection of peas and GMO companies is the level at which we can choose which genes we want.

There is no difference between GMO food and organic food on a cellular level, they are still made up of the same thing, but GMO will be bigger and healthier and cheeper.
These people who say they can’t digest things they used to eat are either imagining it, have developed a stomach problem (unrelated to GMO) or have changed their gut’s microbiome by using antibiotics (which is now cured using a fecal transplant from a family member).
GMO will be essential in the future to allow people in developing countries have a similar standard of life to us in the west. It is not dangerous except in peoples minds.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Culinate 8

Kale in the raw

Eight versions of kale salad

Eight ways to spin everyone’s favorite salad.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice